Tree Farming on the Key Peninsula

Sara Thompson
Managing a forest to produce income while maintaining a healthy ecosystem is possible even for small landowners. Lisa Bryan, KP News Editor’s note: This is the last of a three-part series about logging on the Key Peninsula. The first article provided an overview of permitting requirements and an example of what happens when the rules are ignored. The second article described the practice of clear-cutting. This article discusses alternative forestry practices.
There are many stories behind the logs being trucked off the Key Peninsula every day. Some come from land owned by neighbors; others come from land owned by people who live elsewhere. Some come from land purchased by companies just to harvest the timber and sell the land immediately, or from companies seeking to develop it themselves. There is another story landowners of even small parcels can embrace. It is the story of tree farmers. Tom Van Slyke’s family has been on the Key Peninsula since the 1880s. His grandfather had the first sawmill in the area and Tom has been a logger all his life. He and his family own about 400 acres in various parcels. Coy Eshom grew up in Kingston and bought 40 acres near Longbranch as a young man in 1958 because his mother thought an investment in land was wise. Martha Konicek came to know the woods when her parents bought land in 1972. She and her husband, Steven, moved to the peninsula in 1995, built a log home and raised their children. They just purchased 20 acres south of their home. These self-described tree farmers consider themselves stewards of their land and want to keep it healthy. They also want forestland to provide harvestable lumber, whether to pay property taxes or to provide significant income. “I love growing trees, but there comes a time when, if this is to bring in any income, they must be cut,” Eshom said. Van Slyke grew up as part of the logging industry on the Key Peninsula. His family continues to operate the Vaughn Bay Lumber Co., though most of its work is with a larger company on the Olympic Peninsula that thins forests. He still logs his own land and pays close attention to the health of the trees, harvesting when the family needs money or if there is a risk that the trees will be too large for the mills. Most mills cannot process logs more than 30 inches in diameter at chest height (about 8 feet in circumference), so if he wants to sell trees, he must do that before they are too large. Eshom inherited $2,000 when his father died in 1958. He decided to buy some newly logged land on the KP for $62.50 an acre. When he left the Navy in 1962, one of his first dates with Judy, his future wife, was a picnic in his woods. One spot was dominated by scotch broom, so he and Judy spent the afternoon pulling it out with a chain attached to his truck. “I preferred driving the truck to working the chain,” Judy Eshom said. “Coy found out I was a hard worker.” Eshom has worked with wood all his life, but learning how to manage a forest was a new skill set. He worked with the Department of Natural Resources to draw up his first forest management plan in 1980. The Eshoms have been members of the American Tree Farm Association since 1998. Their certified tree farm is inspected every five years and the management plan is updated regularly to reflect their accomplishments and the changing forest conditions. “Our original intent when we started intensively managing the property in 1980 was to systematically cut and replant the entire site,” Eshom said. “But the ‘cut the best and leave the rest’ philosophy in most of the neighboring community convinced us to retain our timber through a longer rotation schedule.” The Eshoms still do much of the work themselves, removing invasive species and thinning the forest to remove suppressed, defective and diseased trees. Eshom fells and prepares most of their trees for market himself, but works directly with a forester for large harvests. “A forester knows what the best markets and prices are and can also help with the contract if we use a logger,” he said. When the Koniceks first moved to Longbranch, one of the attractions was the 40 acres of forest surrounding their property. Martha Konicek’s father’s cousin, George Thornton, had managed the forest since the early 1960s. He cut selectively to pay taxes and planted more than he harvested, according to Konicek. When hard times hit the family about six years ago, Thornton began to cut more extensively. The Koniceks lost several firs and 6 feet of shoreline, likely because the loss of trees affected ground and surface water, she said. When Thornton died, a neighbor purchased the forestland. When the new owners said they ultimately planned to clear-cut, the Koniceks decided it was time to act: They will maintain a large buffer of trees on the south end of their property. “I’m no longer a passive witness, but will be in active partnership with the forest,” Konicek said. “The forest is a second-generation natural playground. Hopefully, the legacy will continue for generations to come.” For now, she is getting to know her forest and is looking for a forester to design her management plan. By way of equipment, she will start with goats, a brush hog and a root puller to clear blackberries and scotch broom. Under those plants are some of the trees that Thornton planted and that she now plans to nurture. The three families of tree farmers agreed that all landowners, including those with 10, 5 or even fewer acres, could be as involved with their forests as they are. Washington State University has a forestry extension program that offers a rich selection of educational videos, classes and other resources, including a list of consulting Washington state foresters. Go to DNR has a small-forest landowner program specifically geared to offering financial and technical assistance “to enhance fish and wildlife habitat, reduce fuels, increase recreation opportunities, improve forest health, produce revenue or all of the above.” The Washington Farm Forestry Association provides educational programs. Pierce County Forestry Management also provides services. The Northwest Natural Resource Group is a membership organization dedicated to promoting a sustainable, environmentally sound economy in the forestlands of the Pacific Northwest. Its focus is on the smaller woodlands owned and managed by private landowners, smaller forest product companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations.